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Of Music and Memory: A Writing Exercise
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In the small town where I live, one of our nicer restaurants often has their satellite radio tuned to a station that plays exclusively soft rock from the 80s and early 90s. Air Supply. Foreigner. A little Journey or, if we’re really lucky, solo Steve Perry. But there’s one song that seems to come on every time we eat there, one song that causes my wife to reach across the table, grab my hand and whisper, “Don’t sing. Don’t sing. Don’t sing. I mean it.”
The song I’m talking about is Chicago’s song “Look Away,” which a quick Internet search tells me was written by Diane “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” Warren. I didn’t know this until just ten minutes ago, but I can’t say I’m surprised. Like every other Diane Warren song I know, “Look Away” expresses its ideas about love in rather obvious, sentimental ways. The song is written from the point of view of a young man whose ex-girlfriend—with whom he still has a friendship—calls to tell him about her new love. In fact, the lead vocalist (whose name is not Peter Cetera) opens the song with the observation, “When you called me up this morning/ Told me about the new love you’d found/ I said I’m happy for you/ I’m really happy for you.” Of course, things aren’t really that simple; as it turns out, our speaker is still in love with his former paramour/ current friend, but he can’t possibly act on those feelings. For some reason. So he assures her that he’s “fine,” but then admits that “sometimes [he] just pretend[s].” In the chorus he tells her: “If you see me walking by/ And the tears are in my eyes/ Look away, baby, look away… Don’t look at me/ I don’t want you to see me this way.”
This is not a particularly good song. In fact, I don’t think it’s very good at all. But I love it anyway, and feel the urge to sing along with not-Peter Cetera every time it comes on. This desire has nothing to do with Diane Warren’s craft or not-Peter Cetera’s singing, and has everything to do with the memories this song evokes for me.
Imagine, if you will, your humble narrator as a 7th-grade boy. In the dimly-lit gym, wearing his nicest slacks and a shirt with buttons, watching—sadly—as the love of his life smiled her metallic smile at or rested her permed head upon the shoulder of… well, that doofus she was in love with. They slow-danced awkwardly, while the young me stood off to the side, heart breaking, while not-Peter Cetera assured his own love “I’m really happy for you” even though he was dying on the inside as surely as I was. Yes, I thought, this song must have been written specifically for me.
I know that this sounds like a bad memory, but as a disciple of Joan Didion, I agree with her that “we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not.” And the truth is, I kind of find that super-intense, comically angst-y 12-year-old good company. I like that even now, after decades and other relationships have reshaped how I understand love and romance, I can still remember a time when I was innocent and naïve enough to believe that I could find a type of personal truth in such a cheesy song.
I’ve found that most people have such a song—a song whose opening bars can transport them back to a specific moment in their lives. In fact, some of us have several. So in my creative nonfiction classes, I begin the semester with something I call The Music and Memory Exercise. First, I have them read Hope Edelman’s “Bruce Springsteen and the Story of Us” and Bob Cowser Jr.’s “By a Song.” We discuss the way Edelman describes the Springsteen-dominated “soundtrack” of her late adolescence, and how Cowser finds solace at a difficult time through the music that transports him back to a time of innocence and protection. Then, I tell my own story about young Bill Bradley, alone at the dance in the gym, and how old William Bradley loves a song he doesn’t really like because of the way it tethers him to that sad little boy.
And then, of course, I ask the students to write the story of their own song and the memories it evokes in a mini-essay of 3-5 pages. We usually read their essays out loud in class, a nice icebreaker for the beginning of the semester. In the eight years I’ve been teaching creative nonfiction writing, I have never had a student find this exercise difficult to complete. Even the concerned student who corners me at the end of the first day of class and admits in a panic, “There’s nothing interesting about me to write about” gets into this assignment. It’s an enjoyable way to inspire reflection, and it assures the student that we all have experiences and a point of view worth expressing in essay and memoir writing.
So, anybody else have an interesting—or, preferably, embarrassing—song that inspires such reflection? Leave a comment if you do, and I’ll tell you all about the “late 80s/early 90s rap and hip hop” playlist I have on my iPod (needless to say—yeah, I totally have Vanilla Ice’s song about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on there).
[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on January 12, 2012.]]
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